1999 >> February >> Lehigh Days Memories of a Railroad Lineman 1922 1932  

Lehigh Days - Memories of a Railroad Lineman 1922-1932
by JOHN H. BUCHHOLZ 1903-1994

Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", February 1999, page 21

Part one

At age 90, my late uncle wrote his life's memories (over 32,000 words) on a portable typewriter.

In his manuscript, he recounts his days during the 1920's and 1930's as a young lineman for the Lehigh Valley Railroad in New York and Pennsylvania, and Pacific Bell in California.

I hope that some of the memories and accompanying photos will be of interest for the readers of Crown Jewels of the Wire.

... John A. Buchholz


In 1922, while he was working as assistant signal maintainer, Pop (my father) was called to work in the signal gang. He arranged with Dewey Rice, the division superintendent of signals, to hire me for the job he was vacating. Thus I became acquainted with John Hinkle, who was the signal maintainer for the eighteen miles of track between Geneva and Manchester. His job, along with his assistant, was to keep all the signals operating properly.

That meant, too, that even when he was off duty, he was subject to call. Many times in the middle of winter, when the relays that operated the signals became covered with frost, he had to get on his motor car and get to and repair the trouble. While working with Hinkle, I was called out twice. I'll say it was a hell of a cold trip to get on an open car in the middle of winter and ride anywhere from five to eighteen miles.

Once a month, John and I had to walk the track from Geneva to Manchester to renew bond wires that had become rusted and broken off. They were the wires that carried the electricity through the rail joints.

When I got my first railroad check, John insisted that I start a savings account. So every payday at noon, we would get on the trolley that went from the Lehigh station to the other end of Geneva and make our deposits in our savings accounts. 

John was a very avid union man. At that time, the employees in the signal department belonged to a so-called company union, and worked under its rules. But when the company planned to lay new steel on holidays and pay only straight time, Hinkle helped start a union, The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, that had a meeting hall in Sayre, PA. Once a month, on a Sunday, John insisted that I go to Sayre with him to attend the union meeting, and that is how I became acquainted with Sayre.

John was an elder in the German Evangelical Church, on North Main Street in Geneva. He sang in the choir with a voice that could be heard three houses away, and once he enticed me to sing a duet with him, but I doubt that I was heard. 

You may wonder why I write so much about John Hinkle. I can only say that he was quite a man: very strong physically, very intelligent, and he played a very big part in my life.


When I first went to work on the Lehigh Valley Railroad out of Geneva, NY, in the early twenties, I was always interested in watching section hands doing their job. In those days, extra care was given to keep the tracks looking neat and clean. 

At every station, large or small, with few exceptions, there was a section foreman and a gang of workers. The size of the gang depended on the distance between stations. For instance, working west out of Geneva, there were three section gangs, the largest consisting of about twenty to twenty-five section hands.

Back in those days, all track maintenance work was accomplished by bull strength. Tracks were kept aligned by gangs with long bars, shifting the rails either way to keep them in a near-perfect straight line to eliminate sway in passing trains.

Ties were kept tamped tightly to the rails by driving the ballast under the ties. Track-walkers walked their sections and carried wrenches to tighten the joints between rails.

Once a year, just before the division superintendent made his annual track inspection, even the ballast alongside the track was kept neatly in rows by placing it piece-by-piece, using a long board as a guide. Also, the cinder banks along the tracks were kept free of weeds.

Today, nearly all the bull work is done by machines. Old ties are removed, new ties installed, ballast sifted to remove dirt, new rails installed where needed, and the roadbed tamped up to a near-perfect flat level.


Until about 1926, railroad signals were powered by batteries in a battery well. In the well, there were six or eight glass jars containing water, a crow's foot made of copper strips, and blue vitriol. The reaction in the water between the vitriol and the copper plates produced an electric current to operate the relays, located in a relay box at each signal. This system was operated until about 1926, when a 400-volt charging line was run all along the line.


The bell at the crossing at Clifton Springs was operated by a set of batteries in a battery well, and one day John Hinkle was down in the well working. The bells weren't operating, so I stood outside, flagging at the crossing. 

The local pickup train had done some shifting of cars at Clifton Station, and when I saw it bowling down the track toward us at a good rate of speed, I got my flag ready and looked down the road. A car was approaching, so I got out in the middle of the road and started waving the flag. 

As the big #444 engine got closer and closer, it became evident that the car wasn't going to stop, even though I was waving the flag as hard as I could. But at the last moment the driver saw me. I jumped out of the way as he swerved off to the right and drove parallel to the tracks as the train thundered by. 

When he got back to the road I said, "What were you trying to do? Kill yourself?" He was a farmer, and with a sheepish look on his face, he said, "I was thinking about my cabbage crop."


About the time the cat's whisker (a thin wire used for tuning stations) radio became popular, I was called to go down to Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania to work in place of Carl Nelson, the signal maintainer, who was down with pneumonia.

I stayed at Carl's boarding house and had use of the radio, which was the first one I had ever seen. The first night I used the radio, I put the headset on and started listening to pipe organ music at about nine o'clock.

I went to sleep, and when I woke up at three in the morning and took off the headset, my ears were plastered against my head.


I was transferred to the signal gang in 1923, and after a few weeks it became my job to climb the poles and renew lines that ran to the relay boxes. Every connection had to be soldered and covered with electrical tape to prevent short circuits in the signal operation.

At every signal, the pole was double-armed, which made it possible to break the lines running from signal to signal and run them to the relays in the relay box. There, three different relays controlled the three positions of the signals; whether it was to be a 45-degree arm on the signal, or a 90-degree arm position.

It is not generally known that there is a constant current running through the rail. That current, in milliamps, makes it possible for the signal to operate.


Let it be said first that our camp cars were not Pullman diners and sleepers. At best, they were somewhat crude. The sleeper car contained twelve double bunks. The railroad furnished the "linens," if they can be called linens, but I will say that we had freshly laundered sheets and blankets weekly.

There was a small washroom at one end of the car, and the dining car had a kitchen, washroom and a long dining table. Water was drawn from taps at every station, and each station had an outside three-holer. Our washroom had an eight-foot trough lined with metal, and drained directly onto the ground.


While our camp cars were stationed at Weatherly, Pennsylvania, we were in the process of electrifying the switching process at Black Junction, about two miles away.

We had a fairly good quartet in the gang, consisting of Cork Whitaker, Stanley Carter, Oliver Goodwin and myself. We used to go across the creek to Hinkle's Cafe in the evenings, and we'd get requests for songs that were known there. Once we started singing, we never had to buy drinks.

A short time after we got to Weatherly, Sweeney Brewster, a young lad, I would guess about nineteen, came to work with us. For quite a while, we wouldn't let him accompany us to Hinkle's, but one night he was so insistent that we told him he could come along.

When the place closed at one o'clock, we went back to the cars. It was a beautiful moonlit night, so we sat on a pile of lumber outside the cars and did a little more singing. A short time later, Brewster told us he had to relieve himself, and started down the track to the outhouse, about three hundred feet away. After he had been gone about fifteen minutes, we wondered what had happened to him. Cork went down the track to check, and suddenly we heard a loud burst of laughter. 

We all went to see what had happened, and there stood Sweeney, stark naked. He told us that while running down the track he had tripped over a derailing handle and had a major accident. 

Two days later, as I left to get a pair of dress trousers pressed at a shop owned by a deaf-mute, Sweeney asked me to take his to be pressed also. The following night as I was leaving to pick up my trousers, Sweeney asked me to get his, too. When the deaf-mute carne out with Sweeney's pants, he was holding them up with one hand and pinching his nose with the other. And there was no way I could convince him they weren't mine.


Jake and Pete (I never did learn their real names) DeMell were pretty sisters who lived outside of Hall, and who had a gas station about two miles south of Geneva. I didn't know how to square dance, and really surprised myself one foolish day by asking Jake to go to one with me. 

About nine that night, we stopped in Little Italy, got a pint of bathtub gin, and proceeded to the dance, being held in a large white house on the Lyons Road. Favors were passed out as we entered, and I ended up with a large green crepe-paper hat. 

To this day, I swear I don't know how I got involved in a square dance, but I remember drinking gin and jumping (I can't call it dancing) well into the night. 

When I finally got back to Uncle Art's house at three or four in the morning, I drove right across his lawn, up to the front porch, went in the house, and went to bed.

When Uncle Art carne home for lunch the next day, I was still in bed and the car was still parked on the lawn by the front steps. But he never dressed me down or criticized me for what I had done. He merely said, "Don't you think it's about time to get up?"

When I finally got up and looked in the mirror, a ghoul with green streaks all over his face looked back at me.

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